By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
No offense to teams in the District 7C, but the teams from District 6C have their eyes set firmly on a spot in the Class C state volleyball tournament in Bozeman.
As the Northern C Divisional volleyball tournament kicks off today at the Belt High School gymnasium, there is a very real possibility that two teams from the 6C will be squaring off when the tournament ends with Saturday night's championship match.
The Chester Coyotes, Blue Sky/J-I Eagles, Sunburst Refiners and Big Sandy Pioneers are all more than capable of grabbing one of the two Class State tourney berths by qualifying for the championship match. Actually, they are capable of grabbing both qualifying spots.
"I definitely think we could see an all 6C championship match," said Blue Sky/J-I head coach Jen Dahlke. "I know it's our goal to be playing Chester Saturday night in the championship."
The Eagles may have a little competition for that spot from conference foes Sunburst and Big Sandy.
"I think we are capable of making it to state," said Big Sandy head coach Sherry Roth. "It's definitely a realistic goal, if we play like we're capable of."
And then there's Chester. It seems as if the Coyotes have already been penciled into the championship match as one of the pre-tourney favorites. But Coyote head coach Joanie Gordon isn't taking anything for granted.
"The volleyball this weekend is going to be much tougher than it was at districts," Gordon said. "It really is anybody's tourney. It just depends on who comes to play."
Gordon is confident that her two-time defending 6C champ Coyote squad is ready to come to play.
"I told them that it's up to them," she said. "If they want it, it's right there for them to take."
The Coyotes will open the tournament with the fourth-place finisher from the 7C, Dutton-Brady. It could be a case of a little sweet revenge from last year. The Cardinals defeated Chester twice in the championship match at last year's divisional to steal the title away on the Coyotes' home floor.
Gordon is taking nothing for granted for this year's divisional. She scouted all of the 7C teams and gave her players detailed scouting reports, including personnel, key players and hitting tendencies.
"It's just a good thing to have for them," she said. "We're here to win the tournament and we have to do what it takes."
To be perfectly honest, Chester should have little trouble with Dutton-Brady. The Coyotes, led by all-everything senior Shawnee Norick, looked very solid at last week's district tourney in Rudyard. Even when the Coyotes made mistakes, particularly in the championship match, they were able to overcome, largely behind the hitting of Norick. She finished with a tournament-high 36 kills in the championship and racked up over 60 kills in the tournament.
"Shawnee is just an offensive force," Gordon said. "We know we can go to her any time we need a big kill."
But even as good as Norick has been, the Coyotes are far from a one-woman show. In fact, Chester possesses a solid all-around team and tremendous depth.
"There is more to this team than just Shawnee," Gordon said. "We have a very well-rounded team. We have good defensive players, passers and good all-around hitters."
Indeed, Chester gets solid contributions from sophomore Brianne Woods, who Gordon calls her "defensive dynamo." The Coyotes also have plenty of experience in setters Keyla Wendland and JoAnna LaSorte along with outside hitter Jackie Alisch and defensive specialist Amanda Violette
With all of the weapons, the Coyotes have high hopes for this weekend and beyond.
"They've been very focused," Gordon said. "They went to state last year, and they went to state last year in basketball. They really want to get back there and do better."
Is it realistic? Definitely. Is it a foregone conclusion? Not quite, but close.
"I don't want to sound cocky, but I really believe that we can beat anybody there, if we show up to play," Gordon said.
The same could be said for the remaining three 6C teams, particularly for Dahlke's Eagles.
Blue Sky/J-I didn't just give Chester a game in last week's championship, it took the Coyotes to the brink of defeat, before faltering in the fifth game.
"Every game this weekend is going to be like the championship," Dahlke said. "It's going to played at a much quicker pace."
The Eagles will test that quicker pace when they open up with the Great Falls Central Mustangs, the third-place finisher in the 7C.
The Eagles lost to GF Central in their first game of the season at a preseason tournament. It wasn't pretty volleyball, but the Blue Sky/J-I team on the floor two months ago is a far cry from the one that almost knocked off Chester. That team was still trying to feel its way through the co-op of the two schools and five new players.
"You can't even compare us now to that first match," Dahlke said. "Our players have gotten to know each other. They know what they have to do to contribute, what their strengths and weaknesses are.
"We struggled for the first half of the season. It took some time to find our rhythm. If you look at us now, we're like two different teams."
While the transition with new players and new positions took time, its end result has been worth the wait.
The Eagles have a solid mixture of size, athleticism and experience led by senior Kaila Warren and sophomore Hannah Pimley. Warren is a solid all-around player, while Pimley is a dominant presence at the net with her hitting and blocking. Blue Sky/J-I also gets solid contributions from middle blocker Kim Patrick, setters Jourdon Han and Megan Warren and defensive specialist Maia Aageson.
Dahlke may have her aspirations of meeting Chester in the championship, but the Big Sandy Pioneers would like nothing better than to throw a wrench in her plans.
However for the Pioneers to do that, they must upset 7C tourney and regular season Valier. Roth may not have seen the Panthers play this season, but she knows they are a quality team.
"The Highwood coach is a friend of mine and he told me they are very tough," Roth said. "He said they don't have any weaknesses. Hopefully, we can find some weaknesses."
There doesn't appear to be many. Valier is led by seniors Kristin Diede and Cayla DeBoo, along with junior setter Maranda Laverdure and sophomore outside hitter Aisha Snyder
"They have to be considered the favorite from all the things I've heard about them," Roth said.
For Big Sandy to pull off the upset, the Pioneers must play the type of volleyball they played against Sunburst to qualify for divisional.
"The last two games we played were the best we played all year," Roth said. "We need to carry that momentum over to divisional."
When Big Sandy is playing well, defense, passing and serving are strong points.
"Passing has been our strength all season," Roth said. "It was pretty weak at districts. If we don't make good passes, we don't have good hits. We need the passes to get our offense going.
"We also need to serve well," Roth added. "We have a tough serving team and when we serve well we can take other teams out of their game."
Big Sandy has a solid group of players led by seniors Raynee Pearson and Mikki Hammons. Havre High transfer Kacy Herron has made a seamless transition to the Pioneers. Big Sandy also gets solid contributions from Naomi Williams, Jessica Amsbaugh and Shalayna Pearson.
The big thing for her team is to play with confidence against good teams like Valier and not be intimidated.
"Playing with confidence is huge in volleyball," Roth said. "It's such a mental sport. That's what Chester has. They walk out on the court and know they are going to play well and have a chance to win."
In the other match, Sunburst will face Belt. The Refiners, who finished third in the 6C, are led by middle blocker Cherry Tomsheck, outside hitter Rachel Hovland and all-around player Rachel Schulze.
Northern C at Belt
10 a.m. - Chester vs. Dutton-Brady, first round
Noon - Belt vs. Sunburst, first round
2 p.m. - Valier vs. Big Sandy, first round
4 p.m. - Blue Sky/J-I vs. Great Falls Central/MSDB, first round
6 p.m. - Chester-Dutton winner vs. Belt-Sunburst winner, quarterfinal
8 p.m. - Valier-Big Sandy winner vs. Blue Sky/J-I-GF Central winner, quarterfinal